Firearms continue to perplex [UPDATED]Published 9:16am Thursday, March 21, 2013 Updated 11:19am Thursday, March 21, 2013
Right now, there’s a lot of attention paid to guns, known as a general category labeled “firearms.” Defining the term “firearms” requires us to go back to the first invention of a rocket, a device that owes its existence to baffled Chinese alchemists. They were actually chasing yin and yang, passive and active, in the search for something to eat or drink that would make them immortal. (In China, as I understand it, if you can get yin and yang perfectly balanced, all is possible.)
Instead of perfection, they discovered gunpowder. Instead of perfect balance, they got scorched skin and houses on fire. They mixed their concoction up, placed it in a bamboo tube, and lit it.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, they did this as a party trick at a large gathering of people before the Emperor. The shot was fired and went crazily around in circles, setting, one might suppose, a lot of stuff on fire. These earnest alchemists were jailed.
But, this bamboo tube, when held and lit, nicely repelled Mongols attacking a Chinese city in the year 1232. When lit, it would continue to burn for some time, shooting sparks and fire quite a distance. From China, then, this travelled to Europe, and it is from these fire-shooting tubes held in the arms of users repelling invaders climbing the walls of the castle that the term “firearm” first came. From there, of course, someone got the idea of putting something in there, like rocks or iron or whatever, and using the force of the burning gunpowder to propel it. To much better effect.
My brother and I were, when we were approximately 11 and 12, left unsupervised while visiting Uncle Glenn and Aunt Ruth.
With them lived Uncle Bill, about whom I’ve written for his ability to curse with reckless and splendid abandon, uttering gloriously shocking profanity to which, at our age, we could only aspire. Sheer poetry.
Anyway, Uncle Bill was a state-level trap shooter, and because he went through so many shotgun shells, he reloaded his own.
In his shop, where he worked on cars, tractors, and radiators, was a whole bench overflowing with bags of gunpowder, shot, empty shotgun shells, reloading machines, punches, presses, and all sorts of stuff that held my brother and I entranced, imagining the possibilities.
Look, one of us might have said, over there in the corner is a four-foot-long piece of old inch-and-a-half well pipe. And of course, over here was this bench full of sacks of gunpowder.
Now you see that our parents were truly guilty of gross legal negligence. Boys. Gunpowder. No adults.
We hammered one end of that pipe shut, dumped a bunch of gunpowder into the other end, and, knowing we needed to go somewhere where we wouldn’t be found out, went out to a corncrib behind the shop. This corncrib was long and narrow, and was almost empty, except for a hill of ear corn at the far end.
We figured that we would aim the rocket — even back then we knew how rockets worked, and this was before anyone began true development on solid fuel rocketry, so we were kind of like scientists — out the open door.
Not like scientists, more like the Chinese at that party. We lit this thing, and it went around in about a thousand circles, shooting sparks and fire and whatnot, setting the corn on fire, and part of the wooden crib.
We were like dancing dervishes, stamping out fire everywhere. When it was all over, we decided to put rocket science behind us, and take up something less exciting.
Like cussing, maybe.
Alan Linda, The Prairie Spy, is the author of “Who Shot the Dryer and Other Stories from the Home Front,” which is available at www.trellispublishing.com